Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Ghosting - A Double Life by Jenny Erdal

Funny business, ghost writing. Okay, there are some people who have a story to tell but can’t put it into reasonable English. A ghost writer does it for them. They either take the credit or come clean and admit that they didn’t actually write it themselves.

But what do you think of a celebrity who has no story to tell but gets someone else to make up a story and write a novel for them? And what do you make of a writer who is employed by the celebrity to write the novel in secret but finally spills the beans?

Read Ghosting by Jenny Erdal and you will find out. Erdal can write, no doubt about it. Her English is good, her style fine, her little bon mots amusing. She explains in graphic detail her relationship with Naim Attallah – whom she calls Tiger to minimize the likelihood of libel I suspect – who was a Quartet Books publisher of enormous celebrity for many years.

The descriptions of him – a larger than life, highly colourful Asian character – have him down to a T. He brooked no disagreement from his staff, surrounded himself with a bevy of beautiful society girls, ate and spoiled himself to excess and was generally a demanding, uneducated but amusing and charismatic chap. Erdal, on the other hand, describes herself as almost the exact opposite.

She was from an emotionally restrained, working class Scottish family. She disliked her parents, her husband left her, she was clever but unable to succeed at what she wanted. She gives the impression that life held little pleasure for her bar her children and working for Tiger. She asked for little and got it.

In fact she was attractive, bright, went to university where she read languages, was married with three beautiful children. This all sounds pretty good. But I suspect it was the working for Tiger that did for her: he was demanding as an employer but it was an interesting job. Then her husband left her. Tiger was supportive. She had to keep working. She was sucked into a seductive world of glamour, excitement, luxury, intrigue and power.

Unfortunately a great deal of the book concentrates either on how clever she is – she peppers her prose with quotations and examples of her learning but I suspect she’s trying to compensate for being a ghost writer – or how mean everyone else is. For example she paints her parents as unkind and narrow minded.

Any writer who wishes can describe their relationship with their parents and show the reader that they were unkind and narrow minded. But what I would hope to be shown is how that experience has moulded the writer. And I should like the writer to show me, the reader, how the parents may have come to be that way. I like some understanding and illumination to shine through. Not to do so makes the writer look as bitter as the parents she despises.

So I guess that is my first beef with the book. My second is that, if she hated writing for Tiger then why did she go on doing it? And why did she volunteer the smut she purports to disdain. By this stage in her life she no longer needed the employment - her children had grown, she had remarried and husband number two wanted her to stop. But still she went on. And then when Tiger finally fell from the heights, when he could no longer pay her, only then did she leave. And write her expose.

Erdal was not manipulated by her employer, Tiger, as she tries to suggest. It seems to me that it was a symbiotic relationship. Each used the other: Tiger got a willing accomplice, someone who could write far better than he could, someone who could be bought; Erdal got paid, annual holidays in the south of France, luxurious hotel rooms and wonderful meals, frisson and power.

Ghosting is a very well written book, one that shows us the seamier side of ghost writing, but it was not, in the end, a very satisfying read for me.


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